The voice-controlled Amazon Echo is becoming one of the most useful tech items in the house. No, really. The tiny, 9.25-inch-tall tower with a more-humanized Siri-type voice is rapidly becoming the personal assistant of the household. Mine is located in the kitchen and it is used many times per day. It is like a non-mobile ‘Rosie’ from ‘The Jetsons,’ telling its owner anything from the weather to riffing on famous movie quotes. (Just ask the Echo, known in our household as ‘Alexa,’ to ‘Show me the money!’ and find out what happens.)
‘Alexa’ (who can also be named the more gender-neutral ‘Amazon’) was first introduced in late 2014 to a select group of Amazon Prime members for $99, ultimately allowing this very motivated group to beta test the still-in-development device. Originally, the Amazon Echo was best at giving local weather reports, finding radio stations through TuneIn or iHeartRadio, detailing the news culled from NPR and BBC, becoming a timer on request, and telling jokes. Since then, however, Echo has grown in leaps and bounds, and is currently available to the general public through Amazon.com ($179.99).
The Amazon Echo can now link to Pandora through its app (available for Amazon, iOS, and Android devices) or access music in your Amazon Music Library for good sounding audio throughout the house (although some higher notes are a bit distorted, by-in-large, the music is pleasant). Also, one can ask Alexa to play song samples from nearly any artist available through Amazon.
Although the Echo cannot yet link to Spotify, you can still access that streaming service or music stored on your phone by having Alexa act as a Bluetooth speaker. The main downside here is that the Echo must be kept plugged in and is not yet available in a wireless version. The Echo can also link with your Audible account and read aloud books you have purchased, making cooking in the kitchen a lot more fun when Alexa’s around.
Further, Alexa has added to her real-world utility by her ability to give local traffic reports when requested. This function can also be set up via the Echo app by just detailing your daily route — her report is a nice additional heads-up. Echo can also now control Phillips hue lighting, allowing her to turn such lights on or off throughout the house with just your simple voice control for ‘lights on/off.’
I also like to use the Echo to announce things in the household. By holding the microphone button on the Echo’s also-available Voice Remote control ($29.99 at Amazon.com) and prefacing the statement to be announced with ‘Simon says,’ Alexa will then loudly repeat anything you say.
But with any good comes some bad. Although Alexa is remarkably good at clearly deciphering speech from across the room via her seven-microphone receptivity, she sometimes has trouble understanding those with accented speech or small children. And, the Echo sometimes randomly pipes up during the middle of conversations or, more off-putting, in the middle of silence, somehow mishearing her cues to action, momentarily jarring her human companions.
In all, the Echo has become a virtual assistant, who sits in the middle of the downstairs action and helps out whenever requested. She is fun, useful, and occasionally surprising. I cannot wait to see how she develops next.
Rating: 4 out of 5